Even after his formal retirement from the concert stage, Vladimir Ashkenazy has continued to record. He has favored the music of Bach, and this release, which appeared in 2014 when the pianist was in his late seventies, is his third Bach release. It may be the not to pick for those curious about these late testaments of an artist one normally associated with Bach (and speaking generally, the Russians have never had that much to say about this composer). While the two earlier recordings were complete sets of pieces, this one fits better with Ashkenazy's pianistic conception. The program consists of two major works bookending two lesser-known ones, and the fundamental variety is all to the good with Ashkenazy's rather mercurial, but always compelling, playing. For those looking for a Bach performance untouched by the historical-performance movement, this will fill the bill; Ashkenazy does not drench the music in pedaled passages, but he applies a great diversity of articulation, with brilliant passages executed with his characteristic power, and phrasing and ornamentation are subject to the expressive needs of the moment. For fans of that, the Italian Concerto, BWV 971, has an exciting finale indeed. The two "minor" works on the program, the youthful Aria variata alla maniera italiana, BWV 989, and the Keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 974, a transcription of an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello, are a lot of fun, and Ashkenazy does not seem constrained by them in the least; they come off as a refreshing pause between the weighty treatments of the Italian Concerto and the Partita in B minor, BWV 831, here denoted a French Overture. The bottom line is that for established fans of Ashkenazy, his personality comes through here in full, and he seems to wrestle with Bach in the way the true greats do.
Bach: Italian Concerto; French Overture; Aria Variata Review
by James Manheim